The Impact of Mohammad Rafi’s death on India’s music industry
By Nadeem Sundoo
There’s a lot of talk around the net about who is the best singer; Rafi, Lata, Asha or Kishore. And most of the articles are very subjective, the bias to one or another artist is clearly seen, be it pro-Rafi, pro-Lata, pro-Asha or pro-Kishore.
Ignoring the subjective articles there’s also a lot of objective articles comparing the various aspects of singing such as voice modulation, expression, power, sweetness and feelings just to name a few. These articles give a very clear indication about who, objectively seen, is the best singer India has ever produced – if ever there was any doubt. Some articles also talk about Mohammad Rafi’s impact and contribution to the music industry, but I have never encountered any article about the impact of his death on the music industry. And thinking about it I realized that it maybe holds the strongest argument for his superiority over all other Indian singers.
So in this article I will analyze the era after Rafi’s death and see if there‘s any events that suggest his superiority to Lata, Asha and Kishore. I will use the events in this era to answer the following questions:
- What was the impact of Rafi’s death on the music industry?
- Would the death of any of the other singers have the same impact?
I will also look at the era from the 50s to his death and see for signs in events that suggest Rafi’s superiority. As I will not be comparing singing abilities of the singers, the indicator I will use to determine the superiority will be the level of irreplaceability. Now, no one is truly irreplaceable; if one singer dies other singers takes his or her place – for better or worse. But we can determine the level of irreplaceability by analyzing the effect of a singers death on the remaining singers and if new singers are required to take his place. I will use the events in this era to answer the following questions:
- Was Rafi irreplaceable?
- Were any of the other singers irreplaceable?
Now, most people will say that the answers to the above questions can only be speculation. I beg to differ, we actually have on record events that can shed light on these questions and provide adequate answers. The answers we are looking for are not absolute answers but relative answers; the relative difference between the singers. And for that the events that I will analyze will suffice.
It goes without saying that if you have repeatedly heard a song in your childhood, that song will capture your sweet (or bad) childhood memories. It doesn’t matter who the singer is – that particular song will always have a special place in your heart. The singer’s voice quality doesn’t even need to be good for you to consider the song as one of your favorites. What you value most in the song is not the singer’s voice quality or the lyrics, but the feeling of your childhood that it contains. You think that the nostalgic feeling is produced by the singer, but it is not. In fact, the song could be a very low quality song and you would still like it. That said, it doesn’t mean that the songs from our childhood are low quality – far from it. In fact most of the songs we cherish are good quality songs, partly because they were played a lot (and only good songs are played again and again), and thus settled more subtly in our minds.
Let me first clarify that I, like other people, also have many childhood songs that takes me back to my sweet childhood and thus I’m very much subjective about those songs. I was born in 1968 and I grew up with all the above mentioned singers and thus have a soft spot for many of their songs – songs which hold memories from my long gone childhood. Time and again I find myself spellbound by songs like Mere Naina Sawan Bhado with Kishore or Ae dil-e-nadan with Lata or Husn se chand bhi by Rafi – these songs are in the hundreds, all irreplaceable.
Now, let’s answer the first question: What was the impact of Rafi’s death on the music industry? In my opinion the classic era of Indian Music died with Rafi’s death. His death created havoc in the music industry and left it wounded – a wound that would take a decade to heal. His death in 1980 created an emptiness that could not be filled by any singer (and frankly is still not filled). With his death the public realized how much they cherished and needed him, to such an extent that they tried to fill the emptiness with Rafi-clones (some good and some bad, but never close). It took a decade to realize that he was irreplaceable, and thus the music industry moved on, handicapped – sadly, never to be able to produce the same quality again. Today all the best singers in the industry are but a shadow of what Rafi was. Over 30 years has gone since his death and India with its +1 billion people has not been able to produce another Rafi – that alone speaks volumes of his quality. As a side note it is interesting that neither Mukesh’s death in 1976 nor Kishore’s death in 1987 did spark any frenzy to find a replacement for them.
But the interesting part in all this is the role, demand and popularity of his co singers Lata, Kishore and Asha after his death. With Rafi alive they were all in demand, but with his death their demand and popularity took a serious dive. No doubt that they still sang songs, but please compare the number of hits in the 80s by these 3 singers and the rest of the new singers streaming into the music industry – male and female. In the 70’s Rafi, Lata, Kishore and Asha stood for majority of the hits (probably more that 80%). In the 80s that is certainly not the case; here that figure does not seem to be more than 30%. It is like the public said: “Lata, Kishore and Asha – you are good, but without Rafi you don’t have the extra edge. With Rafi gone the magic is gone – that extra quality is gone. We liked you because you were a part of Rafi’s singing group, but without him you don’t create any magic. For a period you let us to believe that Rafi was replaceable by Kishore, but that spell were broken even before Rafi’s death. His premature death has taken from us the future jewels that he would have given us – for that our hearts cry, but that was the will of God. You however, have taken from us the jewels that should have been ours, by conspiring against him in the early 70s – THAT, we will not forgive! You tried to convince us that he was replaceable, but the fact is the he was the only one amongst you that were not replaceable – the rest of you are all replaceable. Now we will replace you with other singers.”
And thus the music industry focused on the new breed of singers like Alka Yagnik, Anuradha Paudwal, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Suresh Wadkar, Anwar, Shabbir Kumar and Mohammed Aziz and many more. These were good singers, but frankly they did not even come close to Lata, Kishore and Asha. Even so, the public wanted their songs. It was a strange situation; lower quality singers were preferred to the better singers Lata, Kishore and Asha. I feel sad that this could happen, but when I consider what they did to Rafi I don’t feel sorry for them. I remember reading somewhere that Lata had told Rafi that “…you are nothing without me….” Now, I’m not sure if she actually said this, but it basically turned out to be the opposite; it seemed that Lata, Kishore and Asha were nothing without Rafi. Looking back Rafi’s death was the most critical single event in the history of the music industry.
The role, demand and popularity of the 3 singers began a downturn with Rafi’s death. The classic era was dead. And as I will argue below, Rafi’s part in this classical era was far greater than any of the other 3 singers.
Now, let’s answer the second question: Would the death of any of the other singers have the same impact?
Let us start with Asha; this is easy, Asha had been in the industry as long as Rafi and did indeed sing a lot of songs with Rafi, but with Lata around she has always been in the shadows (due to Lata’s aggressiveness). No doubt that she is more versatile than Lata, but with Lata around the loss of Asha would not have been that great. She is replaceable.
Kishore: The Hype about Kishore had ended long before 1980, mainly due to that his singing abilities were limited and thus could not master difficult songs (unlike Rafi who excelled in almost every type of song). But more importantly; the music industry had already had a golden era in the 50s and 60s with Rafi and Lata/Asha (and of cause all the other great male and female singer from these decades), but Kishore did not play any major role in this era. In the early 70s when Kishore was getting the most songs Rafi had to step in for the difficult songs – hardly a sign of an irreplaceable singer. So it’s doubtful that Kishore’s death would do anything else than initiate a Kumar Sanu a bit earlier with a much smaller role of cause; with Rafi around the majority of song would go to Rafi as already apparent in the late 70s. And indeed, Kishore’s dead in 1987 did not create any major emergencies for the industry, certainly not at the level of Rafi’s death. Thus Kishore was also replaceable.
Lata: The argument used for Asha can also be used for Lata; with Asha around the absence of Lata is manageable. But what is more interesting is the period in the 60s with the Lata/Rafi royalty disagreement. In this period Suman Kalyanpur was given the part of Lata in duets with Rafi, in which she performed quite well (and what marvelous duets Lata had lost to Suman Kalyanpur, due to her arrogance). Asha of cause had the usual duet with Rafi in this period, but obviously she was inadequate for some type of songs for which Suman Kalyanpur had to step in. This shows that Asha’s versatility is not total. But having other singers around, that could replace Lata shows that she indeed is replaceable.
So, the facts tell us that Lata, Kishore and Asha had all at some point in time been replaced with no major problems for the industry. Can the same be said for Rafi? From Rafi’s first hit Yahan badla wafa ka to his last songs there was only one period in which another singer was preferred, namely the early 70s as mentioned above. But the remarkable thing here is that even in this period the music directors that preferred Kishore had to turn to Rafi for the difficult songs – no one could sing these songs better than Rafi. This shows that the preference to Kishore did not bound in ability, but was politically motivated. On a side note; what a disgrace that some music directors told Rafi that he should quit singing. Rafi is probably the best thing India has ever produced – luckily Naushad Ali was there to heighten his spirit by playing the song O duniya ke rakhwale and telling him that no one else in the industry could sing this song with the quality level of Rafi. But back to the issue; this show as clear as it can be that even in his worst period Rafi was irreplaceable – this is simply mind blowing! And this answers question number three.
Now, let’s answer the last question: Were any of the other singers irreplaceable?
Let’s start with Kishore: Without Kishore his songs would be song by Rafi, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Mahendra Kapoor, or Yesudas and counting. From a voice quality point of view we would certainly not lose anything; at the most we would lose the style and the extra bass that Kishore has in his voice. There cannot be any doubt that these singers would do more than justice to any of his songs.
Asha: Without Asha her songs would be song by Lata, Geeta Dutt, Suman Kalyanpur, Surayia, Shamshad Begum or Usha Mangeshkar. And they would be able to sing them as good as Asha herself. I have to stretch my imagination to consider any loss of quality.
Lata: Without Lata her songs would be song by Asha, Geeta Dutt, Surayia, Shamshad Begum or Usha Mangeshkar. But most of her songs would be song by Suman Kalyanpur, and as Suman has shown she would have done a splendid job.
Rafi: Without Rafi his songs would be sung by Hemant Kumar, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Kishore, Manna Dey, Mahendra Kapoor and Yesudas. Certainly they could sing the majority of Rafi’s songs with a reasonable quality, but none of these could give us the style that Rafi brought; He brought a new style to the 50s and then again in the 60s he brought another new amazing style – totally different from the 50s style, and then again in the 70s he brought an amazing new style – again different from the 60s style. That feature is simply fantastic – who knows what he would have given us in the 80s had he been alive. And then we have songs that could not be sung with a reasonable quality by any other singer; technically extreme difficult or high pit songs like O dunyia ke rakhwale, Mann Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj, Tere Dar Pe Aaye Hoon, Bharoon Phool Barsao, Chahe Koi Mujhe Jungli Kahe, Dil ke jharoke, Ghum Uthane Ke Liye, Husn se Chand Bhi, Jab bhi ye dil udhaas hota hai….and I could go on and on. I imagine that there is 100s of songs with this level of difficulty. Without Rafi these song would probably loose so much quality that they could not become hits.
So as you can see the highest level of irreplaceability goes to Rafi – there’s not even any competition!
So concluding the analysis we found out that
- Rafi’s death was the most critical single event in the history of the music industry.
- The severity of the death of any other singer would not be anywhere near the severity of Rafi’s death.
- Rafi had the highest level of irreplaceability.
- All other singers than Rafi were replaceable.
Even after reigning for more than 3 decades he seemed to be at his best, who knows what divine songs he would have given us if he has had more time. The above should by now have convinced you about his greatness, but in case you are still not convinced, consider the following question:
Is there any type of song that Rafi cannot sing with equal quality as any other singer?
The answer to this question is a “No”. Whatever song any other singer can sing, Rafi can sing to at least same level and most of the times even better… is there any doubt left the he is the greatest?